Mitt Romney’s “Big Bird moment” in the first presidential debate of the 2012 election season is no small thing. Analysts have not yet, in my judgment, understood its full importance. Governor Romney both disrespected a great American symbol, Big Bird, and attacked a broadly respected and supported public institution, PBS. The China connection was especially provocative. Mitt’s argument against Big Bird and PBS, which leveraged popular anti-China sentiments, came off as elitist, cynical and opportunistic.
In 1983, well in advance of the warming of the Cold War, Sesame Street’s Big Bird introduced a generation of Americans to the culture of a rising China. Big Bird did this in a way that was intellectually generous, humanitarian, and even graceful at the same time. Though there are those that might regard Big Bird in China as simple children’s fare, few in America could have done the job that Big Bird did without having egregiously politicized it, even if unintentionally. In contemporary discussions of U.S. – China foreign policy, it is often forgotten that many in the current generation of American consumers, producers, business leaders, and politicians first encountered the then waking dragon of Chinese society through Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
Big Bird belongs to that rarefied sphere of public figures that are beyond criticism, politics, or reproach, as a normative matter, to be embraced and admired. In Big Bird’s case, this is not only because his cognitive development is that of a young child, and our culture constructs childhood to be a time of innate innocence, but also because he is something of a foundational cultural universal. Since the ’70s, several generations of American children have learned important life lessons from Big Bird—lessons about social norms, tolerance and diversity, culture and difference, everyday pragmatics, life events such as birth and death, and the gestalt core of human experience.
The Governor, elaborating on budget cuts that might be necessary at the federal level under his economic plan, offered Big Bird and PBS as examples of federal allocations that might have to end. “I’m sorry, Jim,” said Romney. “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Beyond Romney’s unfortunate choice of symbols, his intention was to adopt a negative position with respect to one of American culture’s few deeply democratic institutions and products. As the New York Times’ Charles Blow argued in response to the Big Bird moment, PBS is the rare American social and economic equalizer, effectively offering knowledge to the ignorant and its power to the powerless in the interest of the greater public good. It is an essentially democratizing force with nonpartisan, practical intent. Its ethos is deeply compatible with American ideals and the American narrative, regardless of viewership. Romney’s argument that PBS was costly and superfluous has long been a losing one with the American public. Despite decades of attacks from the American political right, it remains an integral component of the American public life. This alone should have given Romney pause.
That he chose PBS, a comparatively insignificant budgetary item, from all the possible examples of superfluous federal programs thus reinforces a central campaign narrative that Romney has struggled to dispel—that he is an intrinsically socially and economically elite figure with anti-democratic tendencies, not someone deeply familiar with and affected by middle class concerns or in tune with its everyday practices and values. For many in Romney’s 47 percent, or in Occupy Wall Street’s 99 percent, PBS represents public, democratic access to what would otherwise be forms of exclusively elite culture.
But Romney didn’t merely target PBS. In a discussion on budgets, fiscal policy, taxation, and deficits, Romney made the bewildering choice to single out Big Bird by name and to juxtapose Big Bird with China, recalling one of the proud moments in Big Bird—not to mention PBS—history, at the same time drawing his own position and status into contrast with PBS’s approach.
Big Bird in China was in many ways the distinct opposite of Mitt’s statement. Big Bird embodied the best American aspirations for China’s future and narratively symbolized them. Big Bird, a character representing the idealized value core of the American public and the humanitarian unity and egalitarian impulses of a melting pot society, visited China and carried these values into the heart of Chinese territory and culture with him. Example and diplomatic offering were rolled into one. Romney’s parallel-but-opposite formulation elicits significant cognitive dissonance as a result and is on the decidedly unfavorable side of the comparison.
There was no particular reason to use Big Bird over any other examples, and there were very good reasons not to do so, given Big Bird’s stature and meaning for the American public as a whole. And yet Romney chose to politicize this figure, privatizing and attempting to take ownership of him. The Big Bird that had a moment ago belonged to everyday Americans was made suddenly to belong to Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, who expropriated the public and leveraged Big Bird for their own purposes. These purposes happened to be precisely to attempt to liquidate Big Bird for their own gain—a startling parallel to the Bain Capital narrative that has dogged the campaign now for some time.
Romney bit off more than he could chew when he took on Big Bird. The moment may help to solidify the notion that Romney remains (perhaps intentionally) the quintessential private equity CEO, despite his presidential aspirations—a “one percenter” disdainful of publics. One who knows and exploits the prices of things without having any particular interest in their value.